This spring, 22 students across the CU Boulder campus (and 12 incoming CU graduate students) were awarded the competitive Graduate Research Fellowship Program Award (GRFP) from the National Science Foundation. The GRFP recognizes outstanding students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for their potential to contribute to research and society. The fellowship award provides students with the freedom and the funding to pursue new avenues of research or outreach. Below are profiles of the 2018 GRFP Awardees to highlight the amazing science and outreach taking place on campus, and most importantly to shine a light on the creative, smart, motivated individuals that work and study here.


Megan Mitchell is a graduate student in Biochemistry who is fascinated by tiny lifeforms. She is interested in how bacteria live and produce energy and is currently studying how certain bacteria insert functional proteins – molecular machines – into their membrane. Megan also works for an educational startup that brings lab experiences to home-schooled children. She previously taught health and science at children and family shelters in South Carolina. In her spare time Megan loves to draw, trail run, and rock climb. Her advice to graduate students: “Consider other people’s perspectives, because often times, they will think of something you haven’t thought of before! All different personalities are important in science because we all have something unique to bring to the table.”


Kelsey Reeves is an Environmental Engineering graduate student. As an undergraduate, Kelsey interned at an environmental engineering consulting firm, designed an irrigation system in rural Ethiopia with Engineers Without Borders, and conducted environmental chemistry research. These experiences motivate her work developing new models to forecast water quality and incorporating satellite-derived variables to improve the model’s accuracy in data-poor regions. This model will be powerful for forecasting water quality in the regions hit hardest by climate change and will help prioritize strategies for compensation and adaptation. Her experiences as a female engineering student and technical high school graduate have also led her to spend time mentoring female, minority, and non-traditional STEM students. In her free time, Kelsey likes climbing, hiking, and traveling.


Abhishektha Boppana has worked with NASA to study bone loss in spaceflight and to develop body models that help with spacesuit development. He is continuing his work at CU in the Aerospace Engineering’s Bioastronautics program, helping design spacesuits that fit a wide variety of body types. He is a lifelong learner and hopes to continue applying his knowledge to new fields and pushing the boundaries of science. Abhi is also interested in using virtual reality devices in K-12 outreach work because these devices help students visualize life in space. In his spare time, Abhi likes to travel and take photos.


Allie Morgan is a Computer Science graduate student with a liberal arts background. She enjoys working at the interface of mathematics and the humanities, and her research takes a computational approach to understand social inequalities in academia. She uses software engineering and machine learning to generate longitudinal data about who “stays” and “leaves” academic careers with the goal of understanding and addressing gender disparity in science. In her spare time, Allie organizes amateur cooking competitions with her labmates. She also enjoys biking around town and sometimes trying to do handstands.


Jennie Paine is an Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences graduate student. She fell in love with physics in high school and loves the imagination and mystery of astrophysics and cosomology (the study of the origin of the universe). Jennie uses the motion of galaxies in relation to our solar system to measure how far away they are. Her goal is to use these motions and distances to calibrate a cosmic distance ladder. Jennie used to run “sidewalk astronomy” events where she taught passersby about the cosmos through portable telescopes and is now hoping to put those skills to work at Fiske Planetarium. When not looking at the stars, Jennie likes gaming, reading, eating food, and playing with her cats.


Elizabeth Butler has degrees in both physics and creative writing and is now a graduate student in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. She had always planned on becoming a writer but fell in love with theoretical physics and astronomy. Elizabeth now studies the physics of solar flares, because they are beautiful and because they have a direct impact on our daily lives. Her work focuses on determining what aspects control the strength of a solar flare to better understand how these flares impact life on nearby planets. Elizabeth enjoys talking with high school students and the public about her diverse interests, hoping to show that “science is like reading a beautifully written poem or short story.”


Izzy Aguiar is a master’s student in Computer Science who is headed to Stanford this fall for her PhD. She wants to use math to understand issues important to fields not typically associated with math – such as history, sociology, and social change. Izzy is also an avid math communicator who uses storytelling, vulnerability, and creativity to expand our notion of what a mathematician does and looks like. In her spare time, Izzy designs clothing and hikes with friends.


Ian Char recently graduated with degrees in Applied Math and Computer Science and plans to pursue his PhD in Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon. At CU, he co-founded and hosted the radio show Probably Novel, which invites student researchers to discuss the research that they do at CU. He found that this is a great way for students to practice presenting their research, and he hopes that the stories inspired other students to try research as well.


Will Waalkes is a graduate student in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. An NPR segment on the Kepler Space Telescope sparked his excitement about astronomy and led him to study planets outside our solar system that might sustain life. Will enjoys research and teaching and hopes to be a professor someday. He wants to teach students that “Intelligence is not a fixed quantity, and you shouldn’t restrict yourself from pursuing your interests based on this misconception. Something may be difficult, but that does not make it insurmountable.”


Kimberlee Chang is a Political Science graduate student studying ethnic identity formation and the role identity plays in cooperation and conflicts. Kimberlee grew up in Taiwan and split time between Taiwan and the US as a teen. This shaped her desire to study ethnically-based conflicts and policy interventions to promote peace. At CU, she studies how government institutions affect the use of sustainable resources and how diverse communities cooperate to manage limited resources. Kimberlee’s research has the power to inform agricultural policy in a warming world.


Emerson Grey is a grad student in Chemical and Biological Engineering. Originally an Interior Design major, Emerson decided to move into engineering and applied physics after two years in college; he jokes that he was a physics major before he knew what a velocity was. The desire to learn new things and tackle tasks that seem insurmountable led to a NASA internship, and today Emerson puts his physics and engineering skills to use developing novel ways to detect and kill disease-causing bacteria. When not in the lab, he enjoys the outdoors, yoga, cooking, and audiobooks. Of his future, Emerson says, “While I was once drawn to a role in industry, I now wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity I have to serve as a stepping stone in the inclusive future of STEM and I am driven to achieve a professorship in academia so that I can invest in the lives and dreams of those who follow in my footsteps.”


Chiara Forrester “got hooked on ecology” as a summer student at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and has studied alpine plant ecology ever since. She is currently a graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where she studies how warming temperatures influence species interactions in alpine ecosystems. She is also interested in the role that fungi play in the way plants respond to stress. Chiara enjoys middle school outreach and helped students from Angevine Middle School create the short video “It’s a Hard Rock Life for the Pika” as part of the CIRES Lens on Climate Change program. Chiara loves hiking, skiing, biking, and climbing, which makes fieldwork feel more like fun than work. She’s also a huge fan of eating pancakes while watching an alpine sunrise.


Sabrina Bradford studies Biological Anthropology at CU, specifically the relationship between humans and wildlife near protected areas. As an undergraduate, she studied biocultural interactions, medical anthropology, and zoonotic disease in Ecuador. She currently focuses on human-livestock-wildlife interactions in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to identify important factors that tip the balance between coexistence and conflict. Sabrina has worked on ranches and recalls navigating grizzly bear territory while trying to manage large herds of horses, which provides her with context and passion to guide her research. She also uses her photography to tell stories and loves exploring. Her advice is to take time to find your passion, because without it research loses its magic.


Emily Southern is a PhD student in Integrative Physiology. She studies applied biomechanics, or the physics of human motion. Among many other things, Emily’s research includes studying babies walking on treadmills and asking how cushioned footwear impacts running performance. Emily is currently analyzing the motion of athletes with prosthetic legs, which helps inform athletic policy on amputee participation in running races and the long jump. Unsurprisingly, in her spare time Emily likes to run, ski, and hike. She also loves baking and decorating cupcakes. She plans to use her skills in biomechanics to help design better athletic gear or wearable athletic technology.


Mike Meehan studies fluid dynamics in the Mechanical Engineering department. He is currently working on reducing complexity in fluid dynamics models to create faster models of turbulent fluid flow. This is particularly important in fuel consumption and hydrocarbon emission. He really enjoys being at the cutting edge of science and working as a team to learn new things. In his spare time, Mike races in triathlons – he’s competed professionally for four years! – and enjoys playing billiards.


Suzannah Miller is a Biochemistry graduate student. An avid Star Trek fan and Science Olympiad competitor, she has long been excited about math and science. She currently studies how networks of proteins work together to control cell movement. Suzannah’s dream job is to teach undergraduates at a small university. She enjoys volunteering with local schools and continues to be involved with Science Olympiad. When not in the lab, Suzannah plays the organ and percussion and enjoys running and hiking.


Anne Fetrow knew she wanted to be a geologist after an eighth-grade field trip and is now pursuing a PhD in Geological Sciences. She studies ancient climates and environments to understand the development of mountain systems. Specifically, she uses isotopes of certain elements in a rock layer to estimate ancient temperatures and improve the accuracy of these estimates. This improved accuracy will help better predict how global climate changes will impact current ecosystems and agriculture. In her free time, Anne likes to trail run, cook, ski, and garden, and she is training for her first triathlon.


Mitch Fulton is a Mechanical Engineering graduate student interested in robots. In particular, Mitch studies autonomous navigation of robots that uses visual feedback and dynamic mapping. This technology is particularly important for medical devices. It will help us build medical sensors are remotely guided through the body to diagnose disease and build models of their environment. Mitch became interested in improving medical technologies after the many medical and engineering mission trips that his family went on growing up. In his free time, Mitch likes to hike, ski, climb, and drink lots of tea.


Skyler Kern is a Mechanical Engineering graduate student from Alaska. His research uses fluid dynamics to study tidal energy and the impact turbulence has on ocean biogeochemistry. In high school, Skyler was involved in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP), which helped engage his interest in science. Although he was planning to become a mechanical engineer in industry, Skyler found a better fit within academic research. He hopes to return to Alaska after his PhD to be a university professor and to encourage students to pursue their dreams. To undergraduates Skyler recommends forming a strong support system and advises that “asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”

bats (3)

Victoria Stout studies conservation psychology in the Department of Environmental Studies. Victoria worked for the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, which sparked her passion for the human side of conservation. About the experience, Victoria said “In most cases, working with local communities and encouraging positive relationships with endangered wildlife was much more important [than studying ecology] for the long-term survival of a species.” She is currently interested in how personal and cultural context influences people’s attitudes toward bat conservation and how to communicate the importance of bats in Boulder County and beyond. In her spare time, she helps monitor bats with Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks; much like her “batty” friends, she loves going out dancing after dusk and eating late-night snacks – in the form of tacos, not bugs!

Maximilian Ruth, Ryan Aronson, and Erica Jenson also received 2018 GRFP Fellowships.


Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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